Willingness-to-pay studies are excellent indicators of what people think they will do in imaginary situations.
Willingness-to-pay studies are terrible indicators of what people will actually do at the grocery store.
Brian Roe, professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State University (isn’t that The OSU?) and Mario Teisl of the University of Maine report in the journal Food Policy, that based on surveys from 3,511 individuals, Americans would be willing to pay about a dollar per person each year, or an estimated $305 million in the aggregate, for a 10 percent reduction in the likelihood that hamburger they buy in the supermarket is contaminated by E. coli.
A monkey just flew out of Wayne Campbell’s butt (see video below from last week’s Saturday Night Live).
By comparison, a 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis estimated the value of eradicating a specific type of E. coli contamination from all food sources would result in a benefit valued at $446 million.
In the questionnaire, they set up six hypothetical scenarios around the purchase of either a package of hotdogs or a pound of hamburger. They set prices for the packages – both "status quo" foods and those treated with either ethylene gas processing or electron beam irradiation to reduce contaminants – and then laid out a variety of probabilities that the treated or untreated food packages contained contamination with either E. coli or listeria, another pathogen that can cause food-borne (sic) illness.
They followed by asking respondents to choose one of three actions: buy the food treated with the pathogen-reducing technology, buy their usual brand, or stop buying this product altogether.
The results showed that consumers will reach a limit to how much they want to pay to reduce their chances of getting sick. If the treated product cost only 10 cents more than an untreated package, about 60 percent of respondents said they’d buy the improved product. But when that higher price reached $1.60 more per package, less than a third would opt for the treated product.
The structure of the survey also allowed researchers to see the influence of human behavior and opinions on likely illness outcomes.
"If the food industry were forced to put technology in place that lowered the presence of E. coli and that ramped up prices to the extent where everybody had to pay about a dollar more out of pocket each year for hamburger, we’re saying that, according to this model, that would be about an equal tradeoff for the U.S. population. And if the technology costs only about 10 cents per person instead, that would seem like a good deal to most people," he said.
"If regulators could become more comfortable with this measurement process, agencies might change the way they conduct their cost-benefit analysis. And that would be an interest of ours, to see if our work and others’ work in this area will eventually change the way people attack these questions."
So it’s more about changing the way estimates are done. Estimates are lousy surrogates. I’m all for marketing food safety – at retail, food service, markets, everywhere. Brag about test results, use big signs, smart phone readers, just be able to back it up.